An Invitation to “Breathe”
By Oluwatomisin Oredein.
On June 5th, 2020 I took to Facebook to post a message inspired by the wave of white recognition of racism’s unrelenting evil, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd. En masse, I saw how white people were beginning to feel the world differently. I also recognized that a number of them did not know what to do with their shock. I knew the “what can I do?” onslaught would fill my timeline, so I pre-emptively offered the following reflection entitled “Breathe”:
“Dear white friends, colleagues, and associates who have joined the anti-racist movement:
I need you to do something for me. I need you to sit in yourself as I process some things.
First, take a deep breath.
How are you feeling?
Tired? Troubled? Restless? A bit helpless?
Stay right here. Breathe into it, don’t breathe it away. Let some of that anxiety and fear stay with you for a moment. And be aware of what your body is telling you.
Your vulnerability level must feel pretty high. You may feel a bit exposed, like an open wound. Everything might hurt.
Breathe into all of this and hear these words:
What brought you here, like really brought you here?
I imagine empathy, compassion, clarity might first come to mind.
While these may be true, I am not sure it is the first thing.
I think your vulnerability did. Your helplessness. Your lack of defense and lack of protection did. Especially living in the current moment.
Stay here. Sit in your breath.
I have been trying to put a name to your sudden consciousness. I have been trying to figure out the sudden “emergence” of a racial conscience. Black people have always been murdered extra-judiciously, but today’s reactions have been exceptional.
Here is what I think I’m seeing:
I’m realizing that COVID-19 has been this strange doorman for you to walk into the anti-racist room. He is the strange usher for an anti-racist you. He has taken away most other places in which you retreat, so you have very few choices of where to go; so, you walk into the room.
Breathe into this; don’t breathe it away.
Truth be told, I don’t know if it is your compassion that has brought you here any more than it is your exhaustion. COVID-19 has weakened your defenses and sense of security. It has taken away every refuge and place of safety. You don’t know what is going to happen, you no longer have a sure sense that someone is controlling the world for you.
This severely exhausts you.
You are vulnerable in a way that your people have not been in a century. This exposure to what is violent and painful is not new but feels intense to you all of a sudden; it may feel new to some. This is because you have nothing to buffer you from it.Because you are in the shadow of a big thing, now, you are potentially seeing (and maybe even realizing that) racism might be hidden in big things like systems and can be found in the small things, like ignorance or denial. You didn’t know or maybe didn’t want to know this before.
You previously only had the capacity to see racism as major events narrated to you by its professionals be they your history books, government, friends, or family.
Your defenses are weakened to the point where you are not only seeing racism everywhere, but possibly feeling it, too.
Don’t run away from this. Breathe into it. Let it hurt your lungs and your pride and Nana’s dismissal that “those” people like to play the race card, and let it make you question who you have been this whole time.
Breathe into this. Let it hurt your lungs…and realize that this hard truth needs to stay in your body and be passed down to the next generation and the next and the next. You need to live in a world of truth.
You have been charged to breathe into all of it and to teach your body how to be in this state.
Welcome, dear ones to the beginning of your humanity. And be grateful.
At least you can breathe.”
What brought white people to a place of racial recognition was their own vulnerability, susceptibility, and shared sense of precariousness. Insecurity dropped the scales from many eyes.
To my white colleagues, “Breathe” is an invitation for you to sit in the weight of the moment, not to rush it away. It is an invitation to feel everything happening right now. “What can I do?” is not the wrong question, it is, however, the question I believe you do not want to sit inside of for too long. But please do – I invite you to.
Abandoning the shame, sadness, overwhelm, and fear of the moment is damaging – to you. I need you, instead, to acquaint yourselves with them. Invite them to stay; they are here to tell you something. Let your body listen to them. Ask them about their origin story within yourself, your family, your community.
Shame, sadness, overwhelm, and fear are not only tied to the harm whiteness has done to others, but they are also closely linked to the benefit whiteness has bestowed you. Sit with them and let them narrate history truthfully for you.
Let them pry the wrong narratives and ideas about other people from your grip. Loosen your grip on all you think you know about yourself. Allow shame, sadness, overwhelm, and fear to draw out the most honest version of you. Let them inspire action and ideas within your personal life, not only your public response.
This will be terrifyingly difficult, but this difficulty is necessary and holy.
This is the invitation: let shame, sadness, overwhelm, and fear change you for good, shape you into a reflective person.
Then, let’s talk.
Oluwatomisin Oredein is an Assistant Professor of Black Religious Traditions and Constructive Theology and Ethics and the Director of Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX. Her scholastic work engages creative articulations of American African, African feminist, womanist, postcolonial, and Black theologies with particular attention to women’s voices within the African diaspora.